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Looking back on 2020: E&T’s pick of the year’s news

Image credit: Artem Honchariuk/Dreamstime

Stories published on the E&T website during 2020 reflect the extent to which it’s been a period quite unlike any other. As we approach the end of a tumultuous year, our editors pick a few that they think either sum up the past 12 months or just deserve to be highlighted.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

The EV lifecycle conundrum

Superficially, this appears to be an innocuous choice – news about electric vehicles is everywhere – but I chose it to represent what has been a fascinating year on E&T. We often plan themes for the year, but deliberately keep them flexible so we can react to current events. Very few are set in stone. The Olympics, for example: there was no way that it was ever going to change…

This year we have clearly had to react in a way that has been unprecedented and while the early issues in the year were full of ways technology could help us get out of the pandemic, and the consequences of it for our sector, Covid has proved to have a long tail. Its influence is still very much in our content and will remain so for many months to come. However, other things are happening. Climate change should have been the top of the agenda and the hugely important COP26 conference should have been happening as I write, determining the climate action plan for the whole planet. We had planned an issue on this and could have postponed it for another year, like COP26, but there was so much within that agenda that we went ahead with our climate change issue in November – comfortably my favourite issue of the year.

Why not choose an article from that issue? I could have, but instead opted for this one from our electric vehicle (EV) issue in August/September. Interestingly, this was going to be a few months earlier, but that would have coincided with a time when lockdown ensured that the roads were empty and car-related stories seemed irrelevant.

EVs make a fascinating topic. There are subtopics around the technology; the willingness for adoption; the supporting infrastructure, but of course it is all a subset of the whole environmental argument. As we know, and is being proved by the pandemic, the world’s problems will be solved by engineers and technologists, not by politicians and world leaders. ‘Electric vehicles’ is typical of that and I think E&T is in a unique position to provide the information that our readership wants to know about it. We can go into far more depth than newspapers and internet research is always slightly tainted by doubts about accountability and accuracy. Chris Edwards is one of our pool of excellent writers who can bring their analytical skills to a subject and dissect and then present the information in a meaningful, interesting and enjoyable way.

By taking a cradle-to-grave approach to the environmental impact of electric cars in this article, Chris presented arguments about EVs that are far more important than just ‘how far will it go on one charge’. I chose this article, although fascinating in its own right, because of the role it typifies within our content and also because it is symbolic of the role engineering has to play in tackling the world’s biggest challenge. At least it will be our biggest challenge when we can finally look at the pandemic through the rear-view mirror.

As you can guess from my choice of article, I am hugely grateful to have such a team of talented and interesting writers and so my thanks go to them at the end of this difficult year. Likewise, to my colleagues, who continue to pursue excellence in our Zoom-punctuated isolation and my thanks to all of our readers for being the engineers and technologists who keep the world turning in the most challenging of circumstances. Happy Christmas to you all.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

UK and allies reiterate demands for encryption backdoors

EU court imposes strict data protection laws for smartphones and internet

Apple adds ‘privacy labels’ to its App Store

The amount of time that people spend on the internet has reached record levels in 2020 while their online privacy continues to be eroded. Apple has long championed enhanced privacy features as one of the major reasons to buy into its platform over rivals like Google, whose Android OS was basically designed to help it mine user data, and Microsoft, which has taken a similar approach since it introduced Windows 10 in 2015.

The problem with this distinction is that it effectively creates a premium for privacy, where the better off are allowed to keep more of their personal life behind closed doors than those with less cash. If Apple really cared about privacy for altruistic rather than business reasons, it wouldn’t set a minimum threshold of £400 to buy one of its smartphones (and considerably more for a laptop). It would also give China a stern talking to – a country that is notorious for keeping a watchful eye over its citizens. Apple even used its lobbyists to try to weaken a US bill aimed at preventing forced labour in China in November. None of these things are unique to Apple in the tech sphere, of course, although they do provide a reminder that Tim Cook’s supposed nice-man veneer is perhaps just that.

Aside from business interests, even consumers miss out – to some degree – from Apple’s refusal to mine data. Siri is widely considered to be inferior to Alexa and Google Assistant in almost every way. Unfortunately, it seems that superior AI responses come hand-in-hand with shady data-collection practices – Google and Amazon simply have so much more data at hand for their machine-learning algorithms to create a better service. With AI becoming an increasingly significant factor, I would hope a solution to this issue can be found without rampant data collection becoming the norm. The same can be seen in search – try comparing results from the privacy-focused DuckDuckGo and Google; they’re not even close.

The one exception to Apple’s ‘privacy at a cost’ approach is its ‘Sign in with Apple’ feature, which allows anyone with an Apple account (that can be made for free) to sign in on compatible sites without handing over any of their user data. Apple sensibly forces those who want to use its App Store to include this sign-in option for their services whether they’re used on an Apple device or not. I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to use that as their primary account for logging into other sites, as it offers the same convenience as Facebook and Google without the inevitable data leakage.

Ultimately, if left to run rampant, the free market will never dole out privacy features fairly. Those who want greater anonymity online will (almost) always pay a higher cost to achieve that. With the US kowtowing to any and all business interests under Donald Trump, and the Tories in the UK taking a similar approach (alongside flawed ideas around encryption), it has been left to the EU to take a stance. Although only strictly applying to its members, EU policies often stretch beyond its borders, especially when it comes to rules governing the internet and tech. Let’s hope that Brexit hasn’t weakened its ambition or power in this area and it continues to fight the good fight.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Tracking the coronavirus: privacy vs. protection

I wanted to stay away from writing about Covid-19 in this roundup of the past year’s news. After writing investigation after investigation about topics that included it in some shape or form, I’m pandemic-fatigued. But an ABC podcast called ‘The Drop Out’ - the story of how Elizabeth Holmes and her medical tech start-up Theranos fooled investors and the public - left an impression on me. Why? Well, there are several reasons why dedicating this end-of-the-year roundup to Covid-19 tech startups has merit.

The first is that we’ve seen a lot of them emerge over the year. Tech that fights the negatives Covid-19 introduced sounds good to everyone. Small companies pitching their groundbreaking new innovation projects to investors are in luck. Data suggests that many received funding or expanded rapidly. Contrary to the belief that a global pandemic could constrain investment, avenues for funding tech ventures have not dried up for tech companies directly addressing the situation.

Although more than a thousand high-growth businesses went bust across the UK under Covid-19, some startups that cater specifically to the needs of the pandemic disproportionally benefitted. Companies such as mental health, sleep and meditation app Calm raised $75m this month. Startups in digital health, telemedicine and online consultation services had a tremendous time in 2020. Controversial and often criticised UK start-up Babylon Health won new business. The firm lashed out at critics such as one doctor who provided many examples of the firm’s chatbot giving dangerous advice. In June, one employee was accused of blackmail after threatening to leak confidential documents that would ‘destroy’ the company, according to news reports.

In the US, prominent virtual-health startups, all making their contribution to the pandemic in some way, managed to entice investors. Thrive Earlier Detection, Ro, Amwell, DispatchHealth and Heal raised an astounding $886m in funding collectively between May and July alone. Startups in the UK addressing Covid-19 directly received prestigious awards. The University of Oxford with its rapid design and manufacture low-cost ventilator project OxVent was recognised by the IET with an Innovation Award.

In short, health tech innovation start-ups owned 2020. That’s where the story of Theranos comes back into play. Covid-19 introduced new avenues for health innovation start-ups to be of service. Many of them will be groundbreaking and useful. Some won’t. And some will appear to be groundbreaking but aren’t and tell us false narratives. Medical health startups can be funded and they can still be based on bogus or non-existent science. That’s dangerous and the scandal of Theranos should be a warning sign from the past.

What would I know? The example of Theranos is closer to my conscience than you might think. After I finished my innovation business degree at a leading Swedish University many years ago, I started a health tech company together with two researchers from the university who wanted to spin out the medical technology on which they were working. Or so they claimed. The professor involved said he could pull the magic off to read blood values 'invasively'. He and his colleague even had some credentials, in the form of written academic papers. After many months and unanswered questions, I pulled out of the venture. Back then, as today, I am glad I did. Mark my words: there are more Theranos projects out there than we think. Covid-19 may have just given more impetus and funding to projects that sound good but should be critically reviewed. 

Four small wheels to fight crime

This was an insanely fun project to write. I am grateful my editor signed up to it. I have never written about the stigma skateboarders face and interviewing others and reviewing academic research helped to confirm benefits and quite honestly, made me feel quite good about being able to do all these insanely fun tricks and moves. Suffice to say, if Tony Hawk can skate after turning 50, we all should try. Skate on!

Ben’s investigations during 2020 have looked at issues from online disinformation to smart guns. Check out his ten favourite here.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Refugees and technology: on a journey of self-discovery

It’s pretty safe to say that 2020 has been a handful! Reflecting on the eventful past year – with the coronavirus pandemic that has changed our lives and unfortunately has taken many – I thought I’d look back on a more uplifting story.

In February, the wonderful Helena Pozniak explored the ways in which technology has allowed refugees to build better futures for themselves and their families and how it may also inspire them to contribute to the technological world in return.

Non-profit organisations such as Techfugees help refugees to learn new skills and knowledge such as data security and online privacy to help them get hired in the tech industry. Josephine Goube, the chief executive of the non-profit said: “People become more conscious that a person can be both skilled and a refugee. Once you fix employment, once you get that recognition by society, you regain your dignity. Employment really sorts out a lot.”

Initiatives such as Libraries Without Borders can bring digital resources to refugee camps – an ‘Ideas Box’ of interactive digital and dynamic learning tools for young people. Elsewhere, mobile technology has been a way of getting refugees to ‘university’, via online learning from universities in the US and Europe. Princeton taught a history course to refugees in Jordan’s Azraq back in 2016 after successfully teaching in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. In Jordan’s Zaatari camp, phones were used to teach the nuts and bolts of starting and running a business.

This is a rather lighthearted story in such a gloomy year. Although the pandemic may currently prevent refugees from seeking out opportunities to build a life here, there’s no doubt that these non-profit groups and start-ups would help them in every way that they can. This comes to show that even the simplest of technologies, such as phones, can really change someone else’s life for the better.

Rebecca Northfield, commissioning editor

Octopus-like ‘sucker’ transfers thin tissues and electronics

Scientists engineer human cells with squid-like transparency

750 million GM mosquitoes set for release in Florida Keys

Crab-shell and seaweed compounds spin into yarns for sustainable materials

I, for one, am pretty much done with reading about the doom and gloom of this year. I’m sick of that 'C' word which happens to plague almost every news story I read, so I am not going to mention it. From now.

Right, so the best thing about life is animals. No question. They’re the OGs of innovation. Us humans like to steal the best bits about them for technology development. This year, it has been no different, even in the current circumstances which I won’t mention.

For example, we have the octopus-inspired device which can rapidly transfer delicate tissue or electronic sheets to a patient’s body. Researchers at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign developed the device, which overcomes a key barrier to clinical applications and could be incorporated into wound healing, regenerative medicine and biosensing. Prof Hyunjoon Kong, who helped create the product, said a crucial aspect of tissue transplantation surgery, like corneal transplants, is surgical gripping and safe transplantation of soft tissues. Handling delicate bits like this is a big ol’ challenge (my words, not his), so researchers worked together to find a better way to quickly pick up and release the delicate sheets without damaging them.

They were inspired by how octopodes and squid pick up wet and dry objects of all shapes via tiny changes in pressure in their suction cups, presenting an alternative to using a sticky chemical adhesive. Ta-dahhh! Nature is cool.

Another awesome inspiration from octopi and sea creatures: US researchers engineered human cells to have similar transparent abilities to those found in animals like squids and octopuses. These wriggly critters can switch on a 'camouflage mode' to hide from predatory fish and have cephalopod skin. Squid and octopus are covered in sacs of a red pigment, called chromatophores, which they can expand or contract at will. Under normal ambient light, the sacs are shrivelled and the animals are largely transparent.

Squid and octopuses do this by using specialised tissues in their bodies to manipulate the transmission and reflection of light. Drawing inspiration from this ability, scientists at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) have endowed mammalian cells with tunable transparency and light-scattering characteristics. Boom! Another one.

From the sea, to the sky! In August, local authorities approved proposals to release hundreds of millions of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes in Florida, to control populations of diseases spread by the buzzy douches. These GM mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) called OX5034 – catchy name, for sure – have been adapted to pass on a protein which kills female offspring before they hatch and grow large enough to bite, while male mosquitos mature to adulthood and continue to pass along modified genes. Only female mosquitos bite for blood (in order to mature eggs): the males are not a carrier for disease. Of course the boys aren’t. Losers.

It is hoped this will suppress spreading of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and Zika. Kablam! Another example of nature being awesome and modifiable to help us humans.

My final choice, I don’t like so much, seeing as they use crab shells to make their new-fangled invention. Hopefully, they don’t use the crab just for shells (hopefully the shells are from seafood markets/discarded after getting the meat). If they did that, that would be horrible, wasteful, and mighty annoying. So, researchers found a way to make bio-based fibres from a combination of chitin nanoparticles extracted from residual blue crab shells and alginate, a compound found in seaweed.

Bio-based fibres are made from two renewable marine resources and show promise in advanced applications, in woven and medical materials, among others. The threads draw strength from the crab chitin component and flexibility from seaweed alginate. According to the researchers, the new bio-based material is sturdy and has antimicrobial properties. Pretty darn sweet.

Anyway, I’m signing off for the year. I hope everyone stays safe, happy and healthy for Christmas and New Year. Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals!

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Lockdown challenge

Obviously, 2020 will always be remembered for the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us are lucky enough to have actually lived through these historic times. Hundreds of thousands of other people, however, have not been so lucky. We've been through so much tumultuous change since March that it's easy to forget some of the little things that happened along the way, the odd changes to life, the adjustments we've made both voluntarily and those that we've been obliged to make. Wearing a mask all the time? Weird at first, now totally normal. Working from home every day of the week? It's been a test for some domestic situations, for sure. Standing in the street at 8pm one evening a week, clapping and banging a saucepan with a wooden spoon? How eccentrically English. Restricted movement from county to county? What is this, Passport to Pimlico? Having to understand a baffling barrage of constantly changing slogans from one of the worst governments in living memory? Fine, we'll all try and make sense of your political posturing, while you get on with spending billions of our money importing PPE equipment that turns out to be utterly useless and fumbling the implementation of a track-and-trace process and app that still doesn't seem able to effectively track or trace anybody.

In the midst of all the madness, when schools and businesses were closed and parents and children were thrown together for extended periods, leaving everyone with a lot more time on their hands than they were used to, E&T published a series of engineering and scientific 'Lockdown challenges' designed to entertain and educate - or at least give idle hands some harmless, devilish fun using various bits and pieces lying around the typical shed or garage. From potato guns to trumpets; vacuum bazookas to geodesic domes, all of the projects are gathered together on one page on the E&T website. The coronavirus pandemic may eventually be consigned to the dustbin of history, as vaccination programmes roll out across the world throughout 2021, but these lockdown challenges will endure. With the Christmas holidays almost upon us, if you find yourself at a loose end, you might find some inspiration here for spending a few happy hours doing something a little more fulfilling than stuffing yourself with mince pies and watching another Christmas movie rerun. Happy Holidays!

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

View from Vitalia: Corona wines versus Coronavirus

Even the most avid readers of E&T might have missed a significant change in the staff roster during 2020. Vitali Vitaliev - who, during his lengthy stint as features editor, forged a special link with many of them through his monthly 'After All' column in the magazine and more recently the regular ‘View from Vitalia’ blog - quietly stepped down in the middle of the year.

It wouldn’t be accurate to describe this as retirement. Although he’ll perhaps be doing more of the travelling that was the inspiration for much of his reporting in E&T and other outlets over the years, Vitali will no doubt be doing just as much writing, including continuing to contribute ‘After All’ every month. You can find them all, including the latest, ‘A tin of jellied eels for Christmas’, on the E&T website.

This particular blog from June was one of his last for us and tackles the Covid-19 pandemic with his characteristic blend of humour, wisdom and experience. Like 'After All', there’s an extensive back catalogue to catch up with on the website and although it's a shame we won’t be adding to them in 2021, it’s great that Vitali will be bringing us his unique perspective on events as we emerge from the year of coronavirus.

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